Every year, October 15th is celebrated as Global Handwashing Day, led by WHO and UNICEF, to promote awareness of the importance of handwashing to help prevent the spread of infections, reduce sickness and save lives. This year, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the theme is Hand Hygiene for All in a bid to call for the whole of society in every country to achieve universal hand hygiene.
Why is Global Handwashing Day important?
The Hand Hygiene for All theme means action for hand hygiene must become a priority for everyone – for the general public, businesses and all government agencies – to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hand hygiene is one of the key pillars of infection prevention to protect people from person-to-person transmission via hand contact and via contaminated surfaces. Hand hygiene facilities need to be accessible for all, even in developed countries, and there needs to be a society-wide approach to improve both facilities and hand hygiene behaviors. Of course, in many developing countries, the problems are far more serious. A significant proportion of the global population is unable to wash their hands with soap and water due to a lack of basic facilities.
- Only 60% of the world’s population has access to basic handwashing facilities.
- In rural regions, only 34% have access.
- Within countries, there are also great disparities. In Nepal, only 38% of the poorest people have basic handwashing facilities compared to 95% of the wealthiest.
- Only 53% of the world’s schools provide basic facilities for students, meaning 900 million children can’t wash their hands.
Our hands naturally host a large number of microorganisms, most of which are harmless and some which are beneficial. However, a minority are pathogens and can be transmitted to others by poor hand hygiene. Our hands also have transient microorganisms, which are picked up from our respiratory system and feces as a result of poor personal hygiene or from contaminated surfaces that we touch in our daily lives. Studies have shown that good hand hygiene, if implemented correctly and universally, could have the following positive outcomes:
- Reduce the number of diarrheal diseases by 30–48%.
- Reduce the number of respiratory diseases by 20%.
- Lessen the transmission of dangerous pathogens such as cholera, Ebola, SARS and hepatitis E.
- Protect against healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) — infections caught in healthcare institutions.
- Diminish the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
Although there has been little research so far on the effect of handwashing on the spread of COVID-19, a study on coronaviruses that cause the common cold found that regular handwashing with soap can reduce the risk of infection by 36%.
What is good hand hygiene?
Infectious microorganisms are not visible to the naked eye, so it can be easy to believe that our hands are apparently clean when, in fact, this may not be the case – especially if hands have touched multiple surfaces in areas shared with other people. Coughing and sneezing into hands also spreads respiratory diseases. Similarly, poor handwashing practices after using the restroom can spread gastrointestinal diseases.
Global Handwashing Day serves to remind us that there is no room for any complacency and that it’s still important to wash your hands properly – whether you live in the developed or developing world.
WHO recommends washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds – as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice — and then rinsing and drying properly.
Good hand hygiene practices result in people keeping their hands clean and sanitized. While there’s more to good hand hygiene than merely providing staff with the basic facilities, it is a good place to start.
In businesses, how can you ensure that your staff is practicing hand hygiene? How could you increase compliance levels and ensure that these remain high?
Making good hand hygiene part of your business’s culture
Leading by example could help to encourage staff at all levels across your organization to improve their hand hygiene habits. Ultimately, initiatives like Global Handwashing Day help your staff to prioritize hand hygiene not only because it’s important for the business they’re working in but because it protects their own personal health.
Holding meetings and placing materials strategically on the premises (such as in restrooms, kitchens, hallways and elevators) can trigger reminders to your colleagues to wash their hands thoroughly.
This is one of the founding purposes of Global Handwashing Day itself – to spread awareness and inculcate good handwashing habits in people.
Assessment and monitoring can help organizations determine whether their hand-hygiene training and communications are effective by establishing handwashing compliance. It can also help motivate individuals and encourage behavioral change.
Optimizing hand hygiene facilities
WHO has issued new recommendations and guidelines for providing and improving handwashing facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It recommends that all public and private commercial buildings should have hand hygiene facilities at entrances and exits. This includes major transport hubs (bus and train stations, airports and seaports), markets, shops, healthcare facilities, schools and places of worship.
As a basic requirement, your organization needs to have the right provisions in place so that your staff and visitors can practice good hand hygiene. Keep the restroom clean and well-stocked with the appropriate products and equipment that encourage good hygiene practices: access to clean, running water at an optimal temperature of 100°F, soap and suitable hand-drying methods.
Providing touchless fixtures in the washroom can also help promote high levels of hygiene best practice and comfort. By simply eliminating the need for any contact with restroom appliances, this no-touch technology can help reduce the transmission of germs.
Using restrooms in commercial buildings need not be a mundane, dull experience. Different colors (whether that’s in the decor or the appliances) can have a psychological appeal that could bring about positive, welcoming and pleasant hand hygiene experiences for you and your staff. By enhancing your restroom facilities, you’re taking a positive step towards encouraging your staff to continually improve hand hygiene compliance and develop a positive hand hygiene culture that is collective, stable, learned and consistent in its approach.
Let this year’s Global Handwashing Day be the start of your campaign to improve hand hygiene compliance in your organization.